Will Hwang of Mass General on Discovery of Novel Pancreatic Cancer Cell Subtype

Will Hwang, Physician Scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Systems Biology Department of Radiation Oncology and Center for Cancer Research; Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School; Associate Faculty Member at the Broad Institute

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0:00 Will: It’s not an accident things are becoming multi-disciplinary.

5:32 The pain point that led Will to spatial

13:27 A breakthrough study in pancreatic cancer

17:18 Discovery of neuro-like cancer cells, or NERPs, that are associated with treatment-resistant disease

22:31 Will: Further questions: What’s driving the NERP cells? What makes this sub-type appear? Is this common to other cancers?

29:03 Will: Are there some neuro drugs that could be repurposed?

35:50 Will: Always liked to look at things in their fundamental unit

43:16 Advise for young scientists

In our age of specialization, today’s guest, Dr. Will Hwang of Massachusetts General, went against the trend and received three bachelor degrees in different fields.

Or is this the new trend?

Will says that despite the diversity of pursuits, there was a thread that ran throughout his life as a student. He always liked to look at things at the fundamental unit.

Perhaps this paradox in Will’s career is true for biology as well—that which exists between the broad interdisciplinary approach and the single-minded, reductive approach. Between a focus on cause and effect and the descriptive. If biology has been overly reductive in the past few years with the great genomic age, the trend now is to open up again. The spatial biology revolution is part of this new awareness.

Will is a physician scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Systems Biology Department of Radiation Oncology and Center for Cancer Research. He's also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an associate faculty member at the Broad Institute. And he’s the lead author of the cover article of the August edition of Nature Genetics. The result of several years of work, the paper reveals the discovery of a new type of pancreatic cell subtype, a neuro-like cell progenitor cancer cell his group calls "NERP."

“Using single RNA nucleus sequencing paired with spatial whole transcriptome technology, we were able to identify a novel treatment resistant sub-type of pancreatic cancer which we have annotated as a neuro-like progenitor subtype. This has very important clinical relevance in terms of patient outcomes. It also has very unique spatial associations with other subtypes," says Will.

Will goes on to suggest the same cell type may also be present in other cancers, such as bladder cancer. What does the study mean for pancreatic cancer research going forward? What are the follow-up questions, for example, what are the drivers of this novel subtype? What does it mean for the treatment of pancreatic cancer patients? Will says he is now working to screen several existing drugs for treatment against the cells.

We finish up with Will's advice to young scientists that could apply to their science as well as their careers: be open to fields that may not be your specialty.